Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings
by Tom Shippey
Reaktion Books, 2018
Tom Shippey's irresistible new book Laughing Shall I Die is a densely-detailed excavation of the live, battles, and deaths of the towering figures from the Norse sagas and poems, and thereby uncover something of what he calls “the Viking mindset,” the fierce death-cult intensity that enabled these roving bands of sea-warriors to cow and terrorize vast swaths of Europe all the way to the perimeter of the Caliphate.
He tackles such outsized figures as Egil the Ugly and Ivar the Boneless and Einar Wobble-belly, among many others from the vast gallery of unforgettable characters from the sagas, subjecting those sagas to thrillingly close literary and archeological scrutiny. 2018 has seen a mini-bonanza in popular histories of Vikings, and even so, Laughing Shall I Die easily stands out as one of the best such books in years – not since Eric Christiansen's 2001 book The Norsemen in the Viking Age.
And the Vikings aren't the only pugnacious ones in these pages. Throughout the book, Shippey wields his own broadaxe against the hordes of scholars who've written about the Vikings before him. “Most scholarly books with 'Viking' in the title turn out to no be about Vikings, because Vikings aren't popular among scholars,” he writes at one point. “This book is different: it really is about Vikings.” His book is certainly about Vikings, but so too are the hundreds of scholarly books in his own bibliography. If Vikings are unpopular among scholars, you'd be hard-pressed to know it from Shippey's book.
But regardless of territorial squabbling, Shippey's inquiries are bracing and vivid; his forensic readings of the sagas and poems are consistently fascinating. When he writes about “the archetypal Viking” Ragnar Lodbrog (or “hairy-breeches”), for instance, he manages to make interesting insights while at the same time throwing a few more sharp elbows at his historian colleagues:
The poem was all very rude, very barbaric, very boastful and not gentlemanly at all – a feeling that has not quite gone away among the modern scholarly community. Still, no one then or now could deny its claim to 'heroic virtue,' as the eighteenth-century phrase. The Norse variety of heroic virtue was unexpected also in its incipient democracy: Norse poems might be complicated, even fantastically complicated, in their use of a special language for poetry. But Norse jarls, like Anglo-Saxon thanes, still talked the same way as karls or churls … This may have given an extra thrill of daring naughtiness to the learned readers of the past – even if it still upsets too many of the delicati among the learned readers of the present.
Flinty, argumentative, bristling with energy – Laughing Shall I Die is not only entertaining and challenging … it's also the most Viking Viking book we'll likely see all year.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com